Wednesday, January 08, 2020

Totally Fetch?: Not Quite, but 'Mean Girls' Musical is More Likable than Not -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mean Girls
First National Tour
Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru January 26

I’ve been surprised by many a musical, regardless of its reputation, subject matter, source material, composer, lyricist & writer, target demographic or whatever else.

There have been musicals I’ve unsuspectingly found rather delightful—Bat Boy and Legally Blonde come readily to mind—and others that candidly disappointed me, sometimes despite high expectations.

Though I came to love the music of Hedwig and the Angry Inch before seeing it for the first time a few years ago, and heartily applaud the show’s themes and messages, the excessive monologues largely sapped my pleasure beyond hearing the songs.

What’s a bit strange about Mean Girls—a musical based on Tina Fey’s 2004 movie about high school cliques—is that it both delighted and disappointed me a bit more than expected.

I have high regard for Fey’s comedic writing talents and sufficiently enjoyed the movie—in which new girl Cady Heron (played by Lindsay Lohan) contends with but also befriends the pretty Plastics, led by mean Regina George (Rachel McAdams)—both back when and again more recently.

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
I never felt like, “OMG! I can’t wait to see this as a stage musical,” but as I intimate above, stellar musicals can come from anywhere.

And in doing something of a survey of rock-infused musicals last year, I found myself really liking some of the songs from Mean Girls, particularly “I’d Rather Be Me” and “I See Stars.” (Lyrics are by Nell Benjamin, who also did a fine job on Legally Blonde, but rather than her usual songwriting partner, Laurence O’Keefe, the music for Mean Girls was composed by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond.)

Fey adapted her screenplay into the book of the musical, and Mean Girls continues a nice Broadway run even as its inaugural national tour is well underway.

The show garnered 12 Tony Award nominations in 2018, and though it didn't win any, I'm always happy to expand my universe of musicals seen.

So I entered Chicago's grandiose Nederlander Theatre--long known as the Oriental--fairly excited to come face-to-face with Mean Girls.

And while I didn't quite find it fantastic--or per the movie's buzz word--fetch, at least not to an exponential degree, it certainly made for enjoyable entertainment.

My recollection of the movie isn't strong enough to reference it with exactitude, but my sense is that the musical hews pretty closely.

But Fey and director Casey Nicolaw--whose pedigree includes The Drowsy Chaperone, The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, and who also serves as choreographer--have opted bring two of Cady's friends more front and center to help guide the story.

Cady (nicely played and well-sung by Danielle Wade, who reminds of Fey), has been raised and home-schooled in Kenya, but suddenly relocates to the jungle known as north suburban Chicago.

Arriving at the fictional North Shore High School, she faces the normal discomfiture of being a new kid, but is welcomed by artsy-cynic Janis (Mary Kate Morrissey) and the openly gay Damian (Eric Huffman).

Through the rather inspired "Where Do You Belong," accompanied by an inventive dance number featuring cafeteria trays, Janis and Damian tell Cady about the high school cliques and pecking order, topped by The Plastics.

Mariah Rose Faith plays Regina George, who domineers over the school and her sycophantic pals Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) and Karen (Jonalyn Saxer).

Other than to mention a boy named Aaron (Adante Carter) who Cady quickly comes to like but learns is Regina's ex, I'll leave the plot points for you to discover--on stage or via the film.

The performers are generally strong and the production values are good, even as the scenic design utilizes video imagery to a greater extent than any musical I recall to date. This gets to be a bit much, but suits the young-skewing themes and is inventively pulled off for the most part.

While there are many likable songs in Richmond & Benjamin's score--nicely spread to various characters, with Huffman's Damian doing a stellar job on the Act 2 production number "Stop"--there is also some more middling material.

And although Fey's attempt to impart uplifting, "be kind to one another" messages to young people, particularly teen girls, is appreciable and admirable, the tonality of Mean Girls is just more slight than truly great musicals.

Likely because it's based on a popular movie, the narrative at times seems oddly stretched to fit things in--like Cady's Mathlete competition and even what happens to Regina--and lacks the emotional gravitas of, say, Dear Evan Hansen (an original musical about teens).

If, like me, you're inclined to see any decent new musical, Mean Girls certainly has enough merits to be worth your while.

If you have a strong affinity for the Mean Girls movie, I would say that this is a rather solid adaptation. It was definitely nice to see many girls attending with their parents.

But though Mean Girls does have aspects that any musical theater lover may appreciate, if you only make a point of seeing the very best of the Broadway genre, this just isn't an "A+" project.

Still, as I know from my high school days in the Chicago suburbs, a "B+" can be perfectly nice.

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